Philippine navy and Chinese patrol vessels once again are engaging in a dangerous standoff, this time, near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea - an area both Manila and Beijing claim as sovereign territory.
The Chinese-Philippine conflict first started on April 10, when two Chinese surveillance ships prevented a Philippine naval warship from arresting Chinese fishermen found "poaching" in Scarborough Shoal. The conflict is 124 nautical miles from the Philippines and occurred within Manila's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). EEZ is recognized under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a signatory.
The Philippines moved forcefully in the early stages of the confrontation, sending its largest and most modern warship, BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, to intercept the Chinese ships. A standoff ensued, however, China sent in more ships and it is reported that Chinese nuclear submarines are dispatching to the disputed waters.
In the recent Scarborough conflict, Beijing also flatly rejected Manila's request to take the dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea and claimed that Filipino sailors had harassed Chinese fishermen in Scarborough Shoal. In return, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin testified it is the Philippines who are being bullied by China. "How can an ant bully an elephant?" asked Gazmin. Manila is now calling for an international diplomatic offensive to pressure Beijing into accepting recognized international law.
The Scarborough Shoal conflict reflects at least the second time in less than a year the Chinese navy has faced down the navies of smaller South East Asian states in South China Sea. The Sino-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) disputes in South China Sea took the center stage in June 2011 as Chinese patrol boats slashed cables of the survey ships operated by Petro Vietnam. Hanoi publicly denounced China as intentionally attacking its ships inside Vietnam's EEZ and the tensions had fueled anti-Chinese sentiment across Vietnam.
With Chinese maritime power growing, Beijing is claiming the entire South China Sea as China's territorial water. The Philippines and other ASEAN countries are becoming increasingly worried. Viewing from Southeast Asian capitals, Beijing is taking a very aggressive stance on its South China Sea claims.
"It would be rather absurd," writes Vietnamese journalist Huy Duong, "if England were to try to claim sovereignty over most of the English Channel, Iran the Persian Gulf, Vietnam the Gulf of Tonkin, Japan the Sea of Japan, or Mexico the Gulf of Mexico. But that is exactly what China is trying to do by claiming most of the South China Sea, a body of water about the size of the Mediterranean Sea bordered by 10 nations and the main gateway between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean."
As Manila remains locked in the standoff with Beijing, on April 16, a 12-day, large scale joint war game between the United States and the Philippines - Balikatan or "shoulder-to-shoulder" in Tagalog - is getting under way in the South China Sea.
When the U.S.-Philippine joint military exercises take place every year, the context within which the Balikatan 2012 is taking place has changed. As Amiel Ungar of Israel National News points out, "It was a classic case in of calling in big brother after a run in with the local bully. Although scheduled way in advance, the annual war games involving the U.S. military and armed forces from the Philippines, could not have come at a more appropriate time - from Manila's perspective."
As China has come out on top in every dispute with its smaller South East Asian neighbors, these "aggrieved nations," writes Michael Auslin of American Enterprise Institute, "protest and cite the rule of law, but they are ultimately accepting the principle that might makes right... At this rate, the United States will find it increasingly hard not to be drawn into future confrontations. As it becomes harder to contain Chinese muscle-flexing, America's allies in the region will increasingly call for it to live up to its security commitments and help defend the freedom of the seas."
Beijing's assertive policy of ratcheting up pressure on ASEAN claimants to the South China Sea has unleashed a coming conflict in the maritime commons for energy and security. The Obama administration's policy of "return to Asia" will, on the one hand, raise expectations for a U.S. leadership role in the region, on the other hand, further exacerbate tensions already generate by the territorial disputes between China and ASEAN states. South China Sea, the most dangerous waters in Asia, has just become scarier.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.